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Checkmate: I Got Burned by an Indie Game
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Checkmate: I Got Burned by an Indie Game

How not to get burned buying new indie games, no matter how trendy and promising they may seem.

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I bought an indie game on launch day.

It was Chess 2: The Sequel. One look at that name and you’ll shake your head and sigh, maybe cough nervously when I mention it currently costs $25 on Steam. Then I’ll tell you the game was “designed and balanced by master game designer David Sirlin“, according to the promotional copy anyway, as if that’s somehow relevant. You may sigh just a smidgen more, maybe place palm to forehead, Patrick Stewart style. Then I’ll tell you that one of the biggest selling points on the game’s Steam page is that it offers cross-platform play with the OUYA. You might walk away at that point, secure in the new-found knowledge that I make poor financial decisions. I’d understand.

But like a fool, I bought it anyway because I’ve got a friend who likes chess and odd variations on chess and we figured we’d play together. You can’t, of course. This was originally an OUYA game (in other words, a smartphone game) ported to the PC with little in the way of frills or additions. So it’s not actually possible to invite a friend to play with you. Literally the absolute minimum of work was done to offer this game for sale at a shockingly high $25 asking price. There’s not even an options menu so it’s impossible to turn down the game’s blaring piano music or adjust the screen resolution. You can play against random players online and that’s about it, though hey, maybe one of them will be playing on OUYA? I guess that’s neat. Maybe.

Oh, and if you’ve got issues with the price, the developers will happily tell you that it’s fine because OUYA players are paying each time they play a match. After reading this my tune suddenly changed and I suddenly felt better with my purchase. All was well in the world and I forgot that had I simply dropped an extra $15 I could’ve picked up Fritz Chess 14, a well-regarded chess product that unfortunately has nothing to do with David Sirlin or the OUYA.

Back to Chess 2, unfortunately. The developers claim that being able to play with friends is “coming soon.” Fritz can handle it right now. Incidentally, so can other fascinating and less expensive Steam titles like Magical Drop V ($1), Trine ($15, vastly less on sale) and its sequel ($20) and Space Farmers ($10), though these were also not touched by David Sirlin nor are they playable on OUYA.

Another friend, who had encouraged us to just use chess.com instead, called on Skype upon hearing of the situation and proceeded to laugh at my chess-loving companion and I uproariously for three or four minutes. This is precisely the kind of exciting emergent gameplay that OUYA consumers have come to expect: the kind where people laugh at you for making bad decisions. Video games bring people together in the most fascinating ways.

I normally don’t complain about this sort of thing. When it comes to indie games, it’s important for the consumer to go in knowing there’s a high probability that they’ll get burned, at least at the outset. Indie studios, despite their status as the darlings of the gaming press, are notorious for having little management or accountability if a product is a stinker, after all. So when I dropped my cash on a game with the coveted “indie” genre on Steam, I was prepared for disappointment, even though more often than not that isn’t how things go. This time it was.

I realize I haven’t said much about how the game plays. Frankly, that’s because as it stands I didn’t really feel like playing it after my initial experience. By all accounts it’s some wacky evolution of the classic game that introduces asymmetrical armies and newly minted win conditions. I’m sure there’s plenty to say about Chess 2: The Sequel as a game, but I’m not the one to say it. I’m still fuming over the lack of a simple friends-list invite function.

So here’s my point: read reviews before you buy anything on release day, particularly if it’s an indie game as their quality can vary drastically. For that matter, avoid pre-orders and pre-purchasing. Really, let’s be honest, is it wise to buy anything on release day in the first place? Chess 2 feels like one of those games that will probably cost five bucks in a couple of months and I’m going to feel even more ridiculous, a feeling that will only intensify when it’s bundled with ten other indie turds for a buck several weeks later.

Learn from my shame. Be a smart consumer. Unless David Sirlin gets ambitious and decides to design and balance Checkers: Reloaded. Then it’s time to bust out the credit card.

About the Author: Cory Galliher